1/11/10

Welcome to Rwanda & Lessons in Transportation

Our new group of Rwanda volunteers have recently arrived in Kigali, and are busy with orientation and training, absorbing as much as they can before they head out to their respective sites! Below, WorldTeach volunteer Meghan VanderMale shares some of her first experiences and impressions in-country.

"We have arrived in Kigali! After several exhausting flights and much anticipation, we finally arrived in Rwanda. By a stroke of luck, three of us ended up getting bumped up to business class and got to fly the two longest legs of the journey (20 hours total) on cloud nine! The first day of my volunteer trip to Africa was spent being waited on hand and foot. It was rough living, let me tell you. The last two legs of the journey were from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Entebbe, Uganda, and from there to Kigali. Once we got low enough to see the landscape through the clouds the excitement started to build. Not only is the land incredibly lush and green, but the dirt is a bright brick red and the contrasting colors are striking.

The city of Kigali is much larger than I expected (it has a population of 1 million people), and the hills give it so much dimension that even without the large skyscrapers, it seems huge. Looking out at it, it reminds me of looking at the Smokey Mountains, but instead of purple rock, there are green African trees, small white buildings, and red roofs covering the rolling land. A picture really can’t do it justice. Although, hopefully soon I will have a good one to put up here.

We are staying at St. Paul’s Mission, a Catholic mission that rents out rooms for about $12 a night. The rooms are small, but clean and there are showers available…these were much in desire after hauling 120lbs of luggage around.

Meghan with Ben, a local who gave the group a language and culture lesson as part of their orientation [photo courtesy of Meghan VanderMale]

WorldTeach Rwanda, hard at work in an orientation session [photo courtesy of Meghan VanderMale]

I have heard a little more about my school, Kelly Jo, our field director said that it is the most beautiful place she has visited in the country and that the headmistress is really nice. Hopefully on Saturday she, along with the other headmistresses and headmasters will be coming for a brunch so we can ask them questions.

The other day, our group did a scavenger hunt around Kigali as a way of helping us get to know the city and how to get around it. Aside from taking the taxis, none of us had really had any experience with transportation around the city. The whole exercise was very good as it forced us to ask for directions and deal with the language barrier (I found that using my French was much faster than trying to stumble through our questions in English).

There are three main modes of transportation in Kigali, the most expensive and most convenient being a taxi. It typically costs about 2000-3000 rwf (Rwandan francs) which is about $4-6, but you can take 4 people and the driver will know exactly where you need to go.

The second kind of transportation is the "moto" which varies in prices around $1. Like taking a taxi, you have to haggle a little to get a lower price. Once we have mastered haggling over the prices in Kinyarwanda rather than French or English, we should be able to get cheaper rates as the drivers won’t take advantage of us for being “muzungus” (foreigners). Since my only experience on two-wheeled vehicles is a bicycle, my first moto experience felt like Mario Kart Live. As soon as the price is negotiated, you are handed a helmet, which is always too big and has multiple cracks and probably a large chuck of visor missing. You swing your leg over the side, being careful not to burn your leg on the muffler. Now that you are cozily situated on the seat behind the driver, you grab either him, or the handle behind you and hold on for dear life. Some drivers’ speeds border on recklessness, in which case you have to tell them to slow down (something we learned to do in Kinyarwanda: pole, pole). Others putter along at a moderate pace allowing you to enjoy the scenery. Usually they stop the moto by slowing down at the last possible second and spinning the tail end of the moto around to land you right at the curb. You hop off, remove and return the helmet and pay the agreed upon fee. The whole thing is very exhilarating.

The third kind of transportation is the bus. As far as we can tell, there is no visible way of determining where a bus is going, the only way to do it is to ask. About 2/3 of the buses are plain white and yellow, but the other 1/3 have names like: “T-pain,” “Kayne West,” and “G-Star.” I recently rode on “T-pain” which is painted in orange and purple tiger stripes and had a bedazzled interior. It costs 120rwf to ride and they cram 16 people in each bus at a time. While the Rwandans may be more modest in dress than westerners, they have no qualms about physical contact with strangers. If the bus is full, you won’t be able to move and might just find someone in your lap. The bus system is quite organized and everyone knows when to move over, when to get out, when to pay, and what bus to take. There are two workers on each bus, the driver and then another who stands by the door and collects money and makes change as people get off, or before the end of the main hub. He jumps in and out of the car, whizzing the door open or shut while the van is in motion.

The inside of a bus in Kigali [photo courtesy of Meghan VanderMale]

We have been advised that the transportation here is all very safe and now know how to use it all, so we feel much more at home. To add to this feeling, I have learned enough Kinyarwanda to have a 2 minute greeting with a local. One thing about Rwandans is that they rarely just say a passing hello: their greeting is to ask how you are and listen to your response. Those I have spoken with in Kinyarwanda light up immediately when they hear you attempting their language."

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